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“Saving the Universe” – LEGO Universe in School

Marianne Malmstrom

June 16, 10:30–12:00 Civic Engagement

Last fall the Elisabeth Morrow School, in Englwood, N.J., embarked on an exciting quest: develop an after–school program that teaches safe, civil online behavior to 3rd and 4th graders using LEGO Universe. Designed for 8–to–12–year–olds, this unique new MMOG allows users to join an epic quest, complete missions, and create, build, and animate their own content in a safe environment. These combined features, along with the game’s popularity with our students, made LEGO Universea promising candidate for use in our after-school classroom.
Our primary goal in developing the program was to provide an engaging online space where civil behavior could be mentored, practiced and normalized. Secondary goals included giving students a chance to stretch their creativity by exploring the content creator and animation functions and promoting collaboration and problem solving through group questing.
But the ultimate question was: How well will playing LEGO Universe meet the educational objectives outlined by our school? In this session you will hear a detailed account of our initial findings and learn why we have opted to continue this program in our summer program.

Presentation notes:


I am not a researcher.
I am not a game developer.
I am an educator.

I work for The Elisabeth Morrow School, an independent school in NJ serving PreK-Grade 8.

Until 4 years ago, I was not a gamer. In fact, I'm embarrassed to confess that I was one of those teachers. You know them, the ones that are adamant that games have no place in school. Luckily, my commitment to learning was far greater than any misguided, preconceived notions.

One might ask how a 30+ year veteran teacher came to design curriculum for young children using MMOGs. Simple. It's because I follow the learning, where ever it leads. And, that is what has led me here!

It is my mission to design learning environments for my students that are relevant, prepare them to function in the world in which they live and prepare them to adapt to the constant change that is ahead of them.

Anne Collier, Co-Chair of Obama's Task Force for Online Safety & Technology Workgroup, has been a major influence on shaping my thinking on this topic. Her work highlights the importance of finding ways to work with kids using the tools of their world. In fact, it is critical if we are to help them develop the skills necessary to function in a safe, civilized and knowledgable manner online.

Select MMOGs and virtual worlds lend themselves beautifully to this goal. At The Elisabeth Morrow School, we have been developing curriculum using these tools with our middle schools students for the last 3 years. These programs have been highly successful. One thing we have learned is that we need to be introducing these types of learning environments at an earlier age. This is critical since there is a proliferation of commercial interactive/participatory media being developed and marketed to very young children. If we want the help them develop healthy online practices, we need to be using these kinds of spaces with the kids in order to model, mentor and guide their behavior.

Why LEGO Universe?

The Platform:

LEGO Universe is specifically designed for younger children.
LEGO Universe is a MMOG, allowing children to interact with others.
It is a unique mash-up of a quest based game and a platform for creating content.

LEGO Universe Goals:

SAFETY - First and foremost, LEGO designed this MMOG with safety as their first priority. The safety features built into the game makes it an excellent candidate for using in the classroom.
FUN - LEGO focused on making the game FUN! They were successful. The kids LOVE this game.
Imagination & Creativity - LEGO wanted to spark kids' imagination and creativity. They do! I am amazed by how the kids completely immures themselves into their play. This is true whether they are on a solo mission or playing with friends. This playfulness also transcends ages. When I had my middle school tech club try it out, they were as animated as my younger students.
Learn more about the development of LEGO Universe.

My Goals:


Citizenship - Participatory media is a vital part of the world in which or children live. It is important to provide mentored opportunities for children to learn & practice citizenship within these online communities.
Collaboration & Problem Solving - Playing MMOGs give students an opportunity to play & work collaboratively as they help each other solve problems and complete quests. Many of the quests are specifically designed to require a group of players to complete the task. This encourages players to move beyond single player mode and negotiate with others on how to work together in order to successfully complete the challenge.
Imagination & Creativity - Imagination & creativity are cited as essential objectives for the 21st century student. Both Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) and Sir Ken Robinson (The Element) have devoted books focused on why creativity will be one of the most important skills to determine success in our quickly changing world. What makes LEGO Universe unique is that it goes beyond simple game questing and encourages users to create, animate and share their own content.

Beyond My Goals:

When I asked my 7th grade tech club to test the game and give feedback, most gave LEGO Universe high marks as a great game for younger kids but had difficulty imagining the educational value in playing it. Surprisingly, their comments reflected a perceived disconnect between education and gaming. There was one student, however, who provided this valuable insight:
A sobering reminder that kids need a place where they can feel brave and successful.



While I was looking for a chance to practice online engagement, I had not really anticipated the citizenship that took place in class.
Even when students were involved in completing individual quests, there was an almost constant buzz in the room as students (and teachers) checked with each other, exchanged comments about what they were doing, asked for help, gave help. There was also the shout outs that came from challenges won and achievements gained. This is what learning looks like! :D

Week One:

First Group Quest:
The goal of the group challenge is to get an imagination brick that is on top of this pedestal.
The quest requires the team to build four stage props at the same time.
The challenge is that the props have to be the same but the boxes constantly change content.
The team has to first agree on which prop they will build.
They wait for the agreed content to appear on the box label, then break the boxes and build at the same time
Once students succeed in building the stage props, they had to quickly jump over several platforms and finally climb a ladder to reach and retrieve the prized Imagination Brick.
Only half the team made it the first try.
The class had to repeat the quest two more times before everyone achieved the goal.
This short video represents just a couple of minutes of the twenty minutes they continuously worked together to complete the task. Listen to the constant stream of negotiating and problem solving.


Each student prepares a screen capture of their minifigure talking about what they liked most about the game. I edited the segments together (adding game soundtrack and sound effects) to create a promo video highlighting their comments.